Admitted leaker Edward Snowden circled the globe in evasion of U.S. authorities Sunday, seeking asylum in Ecuador and leaving the Obama administration scrambling to determine its next step in what became a game of diplomatic cat-and-mouse.
The former National Security Agency contractor and CIA technician fled Hong Kong and arrived at the Moscow airport, where he planned to spend the night before boarding an Aeroflot flight to Cuba. Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government received an asylum request from Snowden, and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said it would help him.
“He goes to the very countries that have, at best, very tense relationships with the United States and do not value press freedoms whatsoever,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., adding that she feared Snowden would trade more U.S. secrets for asylum.
“This is not going to play out well for the national security interests of the United States,” she added.
The move left the U.S. with limited options as Snowden’s itinerary took him on a tour of what many see as anti-American capitals. Ecuador in particular has rejected the United States’ previous efforts at cooperation, and has been helping WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.
Snowden helped The Guardian and The Washington Post disclose U.S. surveillance programs that collect vast amounts of phone records and online data in the name of foreign intelligence, but often sweeping up information on American citizens. Officials have the ability to collect phone and Internet information broadly but need a warrant to examine specific cases where they believe terrorism is involved.
Snowden has been in hiding for several weeks in Hong Kong, a former British colony with a high degree of autonomy from mainland China. The United States formally sought Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong but was rebuffed; Hong Kong officials said the U.S. request did not fully comply with their laws.
In a statement, the Justice Department said it would “continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel.”
A State Department official said the United States was in touch through diplomatic and law enforcement channels with countries that Snowden could travel through or to, reminding them that Snowden is wanted on criminal charges and reiterating Washington’s position that Snowden should only be permitted to travel back to the U.S.
The White House would only say that President Barack Obama had been briefed on the developments by his national security advisers.
Russia’s state ITAR-Tass news agency and Interfax cited an unnamed Aeroflot airline official as saying Snowden was on the plane that landed Sunday afternoon in Moscow. The report said he intended to fly to Cuba today and then on to Caracas, Venezuela.
U.S. lawmakers scoffed, and warned that all countries helping Snowden to evade trial were hurting their relationship with the U.S.
Upon his arrival, Snowden did not leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. One explanation could be that he wasn’t allowed; a U.S. official said Snowden’s passport had been revoked, and that special permission from Russian authorities would have been needed.
“It’s almost hopeless unless we find some ways to lean on them,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.